School district will need both creative and big solutions for top challenges

From the Vail Daily

Eagle County Schools district accountability committee makes recommendations for top concerns

Every Colorado school district is required to have an accountability committee that helps measure the adequacy of its programs, make recommendations on ways to improve academic achievement and highlight spending priorities.

Last week, the accountability committee for Eagle County Schools submitted its recommendations for the upcoming school year and budget — presenting a list of suggested priorities for addressing challenges to the Board of Education on Wednesday, March 9.

The district accountability advisory committee is comprised of district parents, teachers, school administrators, community business representatives and select board members. The group meets from the fall to spring and bases its recommendations on presentations made by the district’s principals and department directors.

This year, the committee highlighted that the district will need creative solutions for four main areas of need: the guest teacher shortage, mental health and social-emotional supports, the pending expiration of relief fund dollars, and quality of life for teachers.

“We need those big solutions, but what are the small things that we can do also that continue to move us forward and can be impactful?” said Tessa Kirchner, who serves as a parent on the advisory committee. “Thinking outside that box and thinking of small solutions that could be very impactful to our staff members’ lives that keep moving us forward as we continue to work for those big solutions.”

Marcie Laidman, the district accountability committee chair and principal at Red Sandstone Elementary, said that the need for creative solutions was her biggest takeaway from this year’s committee and its discussions.

“As we come out of this pandemic, that is definitely a lesson that we’ve all learned: that we have to look at things from different angles in order for us to succeed,” Laidman said.

These recommendations will be taken into consideration as the local school board reviews the upcoming school year budget, as district leadership plans for the future and as negotiations continue between the Education Association of Eagle County and the district.

Guest teacher shortage

Since the start of the school year, the guest teacher shortage is something that has been top of mind for district leadership and the school board. The main challenge with the shortage is that teachers — as well as school and district administrators —have had to step in, taking away from much-needed time to perform their jobs.

“The effectiveness of our district relies on well-trained and prepared teachers and support staff. Without guest teachers, it is challenging for educators and school personnel to do their jobs well,” said Liz Koskinen, a teacher representative on the advisory committee.

Already, the district has made some adjustments in an attempt to address the challenges. In September, it announced it would compensate teachers for filling absences and made adjustments through negotiations to give teachers more planning time back. And in October, the board approved $500 hiring incentives as well as an increase to the hourly wage for guest teachers.

However, last Wednesday, Koskinen and the accountability committee presented that the guest teacher shortage remains significant, and its impacts to teachers and staff detrimental. Koskinen said that the main impact is it takes time away from staff to do their jobs, to learn new resources, to train new teachers and to gain momentum on district priorities like its equity work.

As an advisory committee, the group did offer some suggestions for ways to improve the situation around guest teachers. This includes weighting bonuses for hard-to-fill days and positions (including for special education classrooms), creating and implementing a tiered-pay system to incentivize guest teachers to return, and creating awareness around the need for guest teachers with other local organizations and businesses.

Mental health

The next area that the committee highlighted was the importance of mental health as well as social-emotional supports for both students and teachers.

According to Kirchner, the group “really heard over and over again about the different behavioral challenges our schools are facing and teachers and administrators are trying to handle.”

While the committee acknowledged the work that has been done by the district — namely its partnership, and recent expansion of said partnership, with the Hope Center — it emphasized some areas for expansion and improvement.

The group recommended that the district continue to expand this partnership — particularly until all schools have a Hope Center therapist — as well as hire fluent Spanish-speaking and male counselors, expand family and parent counseling resources, create after- and before- school events, include social works as a possible support and offer specific supports for teachers.

Kirchner also said that the group felt it was “critical” that a social-emotional curriculum is chosen and implemented in all schools, highlighting that it could have a “vast impact” throughout the school system.

Laidman emphasized the continued and pressing need for these supports later on in the discussion.

“Without positive mental health in our buildings for students and staff, we really aren’t able to do anything else,” she said.

ESSER funds

As part of the pandemic relief funds in the 2020 Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, school districts received significant ESSER, or elementary and secondary school emergency relief, funds. This money enabled Eagle County Schools to amplify its multi-tiered systems of support efforts including intervention classes and resources essential to addressing students’ needs.

This funding enabled the district to add a number of full-time positions across buildings.

However, these funds are not permanent and are set to expire within the next two school years. With this, schools will lose seven full-time staff this year and 25 next year as the government phases out these funds. According to the advisory committee, this is a big concern for nearly all the district’s principals as the ESSER dollars allowed schools to create a critical system of support.

“It feels like in our schools that we have, for the first time, we truly have the FTE (full-time equivalency) that we need to implement a robust MTSS system. And we have that due to the ESSER funds, which is fantastic,” Laidman said. “We have those great systems in place and those systems are supported by great teachers. We need to make sure that when those funds subside that we have a place in the district for the teachers that are in those positions currently … What a difference it has made at all of the levels.”

Koskinen also spoke to the importance of these funds, stating that the positions allocated as a result of the funds “have really served our students well.”

“Being able to support children, obviously is our No. 1 job, and making them feel like they are improving and making gains,” Koskinen added.

While this is a harder challenge to address, the committee recommended to the board seeking both creative funding possibilities as well as continuing and magnifying advocacy efforts by the board for education funding in Colorado.

“Part of your responsibility is to keep looking for ways to fund these positions and to come up with that funding and that’s a big ask and a big stretch, but to recognize that there are some possibilities that we should at least be considering,” Kirchner said. “There are a lot of different and creative ways that perhaps we could come up with some funding.”

Teacher quality of life

As the current state of education presents numerous challenges, the committee expressed the importance of retaining quality of teachers by supporting a high quality of life for them.

“Our goal here is to keep teachers inspired to work in our district in Eagle County. Teaching is a passionate profession and we know that teachers want to teach, but we want them to want to teach here,” said Megan Payton, a parent member of the advisory committee. “And so we need to offer them the supports that they need.”

The committee highlighted two specific salary-related recommendations including eliminating a salary cap that exists at the seven-year mark to incentivize veteran teachers moving to the district as well as increasing salaries at the three-year mark, which Payton said was a typical turnover point for many district teachers.

Payton added that this turnover has negative effects “on a teaching community in a school (district) where we are continually having a revolving door of new teachers who have to have additional supports.”

Additional recommendations for the board included getting creative about finding planning time for teachers; continuing to pursue and promote employee housing; finding creative benefits like ski passes, child care credits and more; drumming up community support for teachers; and working with local businesses to create discounts or incentives for teachers.

Payton referred to these ideas and proposed efforts as a “grassroots effort to show people that we want them here, we want them to teach here because this is the place that they will be best supported in their teaching positions.”

Reporter Ali Longwell can be reached at [email protected].

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